Tensions Between Unity & Truth

This is the second sermon in a series that I started last week. The first one can be found here: Tensions Between Truth & Unity. But if you’d prefer to listen to this message instead of just reading it, you can find the video recording here: https://youtu.be/vdfJaM8ZkR8

Tensions Between Unity & Truth (Acts 15:19-35, 16:1-5)

Well, it’s good to return to the pulpit for the second week in a row to wrestle with the question we started to answer last Sunday.

But if you weren’t able to join us then, or if you need to be reminded of that, I’m referring to the tension we might feel as Christians when trying to figure out how to walk that sometimes narrow road between truth telling and loving fellowship.

That is, how much and in what ways should we stand for the truth? How much and in what ways should we strive for unity and friendship? And what happens if those two things are competing against each other as they frequently do?

You might also remember that I tried to illustrate this tension using the example of a car mechanic.[1] I really don’t know anything about cars. Tori, my wife, can attest to that. But again, consider that when a mechanic is trying to attach a wheel to a car, they need to tighten a large nut on the wheel hub which then attaches that wheel to the axle.

And mechanics want this nut very tight, but not too tight.  

To make sure that that’s the case, when a mechanic is tightening that nut, they’ll usually back off from it about a quarter turn. They don’t tighten it all the way but leave a very small amount of room. And this will allow grease the space to properly lubricate the bearing, and the wheel will spin smoothly. But the mechanic who forgets to back off the nut risks creating friction. Metal will begin to grind on metal. And eventually, you’ll end up with a very red hot and useless mess on your hands.

However, the opposite can also happen. If a mechanic backs off that nut too far, the wheel isn’t going to be properly attached to the car. It’ll be too loose. And if you run over a pothole or drive off of a curb, you risk that wheel just falling right off.  

If things are too tight, you’ve got a problem. If things are too loose, you’ve got a problem.

And again, that’s not a one-to-one parallel between the theological tensions we might feel as Christians between truth telling and unity, but it’s close. Because, if we just beat people down with our Bibles and insist that they believe the same as us even in little minor things, we create friction. And too much of that might ruin our witness or any chance of unity. On the other end, though, if we are so lax with the truth that we label any and all beliefs genuine and biblically sound, our metaphorical wheels might fall right off and what we are driving will no longer resemble a car, or Christianity.

Last Sunday, we talked about the truth side of this tension by way of Acts 15:1-18. Or specifically, we talked about how we need to stand up for truth all the way.

Don’t forget that the emphasis on such a thing falls in two places, though. We need to stand up for truth. And we need to stand up for truth. The process that the Jerusalem council followed gives us a good example of how to discern what is right, and we saw that after they came to the decision, they declared it as such. They refused to water down or alter the gospel in any way.

But we also talked about how there’s a difference between essential truths and nonessential interpretations. And if we draw battle lines between those nonessential interpretations, in those grey areas, we are the ones in the wrong. And that, actually, is something that we’re going to be exploring more as we continue on within Acts 15:19-35 and then 16:1-5, but with most of our emphasis on the beginning half of this text.

Last time we talked about truth.

This time we’re talking about unity, fellowship, and our witness within it all.

1. After the council decides that Gentiles are only saved by grace, as opposed to following the law of Moses, James offers up a clarifying statement regarding fellowship and evangelism (15:19-21)

A little over a month ago, when Pastor Tim and myself began to look at the text of Acts in order to split it up into teachable chunks, I actually asked if I could preach this particular passage.

That’s because it’s always been confusing to me.

And the twenty hours of reading, studying, and writing that come with preparing a sermon would give me an excuse to get a better handle on this passage for my own self.

Because, what James says here about following parts of the law, right after confirming that Gentiles don’t have to follow the law of Moses to be saved, has always bugged me. It’s always seemed somewhat inconsistent. But his words here are repeated in two other places in this book too, in 15:29 and in 21:25, so we know that what James was saying was especially important. 

Let’s recap a little bit so that we all can be up to speed on what’s happening.

At the beginning of Acts 15, we saw that Paul and Barnabas were approached by men from Judea who had been teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be fully saved. And what was meant by that was Gentiles really needed to adopt and follow the entire law of Moses.

Gentiles needed to become Jewish in order to find salvation.

But this bugged Paul and Barnabas as that had not been their experience. This also troubled the apostle Peter as he had witnessed the Holy Spirit fall on Gentiles who professed Christ without submitting to the law. So, a special church-wide council was formed to address this issue.

And this Jerusalem council was made up of wise but diversely minded believers. They first took time to listen to the questions raised and the testimonies of the apostles. Then they went to the scriptures to confirm what they felt the Spirit was leading them toward. The verdict? No! Gentiles do not have to follow the law of Moses to find salvation in Jesus. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient. It’s only by grace through faith that anyone can be saved.

So why, then, does James, after that verdict was reached, bring up the law of Moses again?

Or maybe more pointedly, why does James tell Christians to follow parts of the law right after saying that doing so wouldn’t save them?

Well, the answer to those questions is one about motivations. That is, James is not saying that Gentile believers should follow these certain laws in order to maintain their salvation in Jesus. But what he is saying is that, by following these laws, Gentile believers will be able to maintain fellowship and unity with the Jewish people.

And by doing so, they better allow for the truth of the gospel to go forth unhindered.

It might not be immediately obvious to us nowadays, but any Greco-Roman believer back in the first century would have recognized that the four laws that James references in verse 20 all relate to cultic-temple idolatry. Back in those days, if someone wanted to make a sacrifice to Zeus, Artemis, or Aphrodite, they’d head over to their city’s temple. And in that temple, they’d participate in an act of worship that usually involved sexual impurity, the strangling of animals, blood, and then a community feast where all in attendance were able to eat from the meat offered up for sacrifice. And again, that sounds really weird to us. But that was just a normal part of everyday life for Gentiles in Greco-Roman society. However, all of those actions were very taboo for Jews. So much so that Jewish people wouldn’t even associate with a Gentile who participated in practices like that. And even if that Gentile didn’t participate in the sexually immoral component but just showed up for that feast in order to get food for their family to survive, they were considered unclean and were rigidly avoided.

That’s why James gives the Jerusalem council this warning. It was motivated not by merit but mission.

And speaking of things like merit, mission, and motivation, I’d like to read for you all a quote from Martin Luther, the 15th century German Reformer. This is from his book titled On the Freedom of a Christian.

It says: “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that it is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will, do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”[2]

Let me translate that a little bit.

Martin Luther was saying that because he was freely offered grace through faith, and it wasn’t any sort of good work on his part that saved him, he is now free from the obligation of doing good works to earn salvation. But he has also been freed to do good works out of gratitude. And he’s been called to become like Christ for his neighbors, graciously offering them sacrificial mercy because that’s what God has done for him.

This is also the motivation behind James’ words in Acts 15:19-21 too. Through that statement, James was calling Gentile believers to abstain from these certain things so that they might give themselves as a Christ to their Jewish neighbors. 

And, as we will talk about later on, we should take on a similar posture too. 

2. The Jerusalem church then sends out a letter explaining their decisions as well as authorized teachers to further clarify its content (15:22-35)

By the Spirit, and through their discernment process, the Jerusalem council knew what the truth really was. And through this letter, they were standing up for that  truth. The early church wasn’t going to compromise to false teaching. They weren’t going to let heresy corrupt their communities or complicate the gospel with a works-based message.

But notice with me how they went about doing this.

Specifically, consider three things.

First, this letter was their response to false teaching. And, again, we see that the don’t concede to heresy. The early church knew that they needed to move swiftly and decisively so that the teaching Paul and Barnabas encountered wouldn’t grow into an overwhelming problem. They didn’t sit idly by and allow it to fester. No, the council took action. And they back up their action by letting the recipients of this letter know that it wasn’t just their will declare this, but also that of the Holy Spirit as we see in verse 28.

But secondly, it’s important to notice that this letter does all of that with sensitivity. It’s non-confrontational in its language.

The council could have responded to the teachers in a much harsher tone. While this letter was primarily addressed to the churches who had questions about the teaching, not the teachers themselves, we are safe to assume that the content of its message would reach their ears too. The council could have included Peter’s comments about the men from Judea putting an unnecessary yoke on backs of Gentile converts. They could have included a lot more criticisms than that and doing such would be justifiable.

Don’t forget that, not too long before this in Acts 13, Paul faced off with a false prophet named Bar-Jesus, and Paul pronounced him “a son of the devil and an enemy to all righteousness.” And shortly after, the Spirit of God blinded Bar-Jesus’ eyes so that this false prophet couldn’t lead anyone anywhere, but especially not down a path of falsehood. But, and even in that extreme case, Paul and the Spirit’s actions weren’t necessarily directed at the person of Bar-Jesus, but more at the impact of that false prophet’s teaching and actions. The message he was propagating was leading people astray, and that message needed to be silenced.

And the message of the teachers from Judea needed to be stopped too. But the Jerusalem council also knew that their battle was not with people but the faulty beliefs that these people were propagating.

Christian leaders battle false ideas but not people.

And thirdly, recognize that this letter was meant to be just the beginning of a longer discipleship process. The Jerusalem council not only sent this document, but also Paul, Barnabas, and other qualified teachers like Judas and Silas, who could walk the recipients through its content. This wasn’t a one-and-done answer, but the start of an ongoing conversation.

And we see that this is well received.

The words in this letter, and the supportive teachers who accompanied it, were met with excitement. And all of this helped strengthen and encourage the believers in Antioch and firm up everyone’s understanding of what truth actually was.

3. Paul applies James’ missional note during his travels with Timothy (16:1-5)

Before we take some time to think about how we might apply the words of the book of Acts to our lives here and now, I want us all to consider one more passage of scripture. Because, this is how the apostle Paul, as well as a man named Timothy, applied the decision of the Jerusalem council to their ministry and mission. We’re going to skip one episode, or the ending of Acts 15, and jump to 16:1-5.

Some time has now passed since the meeting of the Jerusalem council and the sending out of their letter. In fact, there has been a bit of a conflict within the gospel community. Paul and Barnabas are no longer traveling together. It’s now Paul, Silas, and a younger guy named Timothy.

But Timothy had mixed parents. His mom was Jewish believer, but his dad was a Gentile.

And because of that, it seems like Timothy hadn’t followed the typical path a fully Jewish boy would have by getting circumcised eight days after birth. His upbringing was more Greek than not. But unbelieving Jews hearing that Jesus was the Messiah from a half-Jewish but uncircumcised person would have been a real issue. It would have been a stumbling block to them, to use Paul’s language from 1 Corinthians.

Timothy knew that circumcision, or even following the law of Moses, wasn’t that which brought salvation. As a disciple, he understood that he was saved only by the grace offered to him through Jesus and not by any sort of work or merit on his part.

But Timothy’s actions here, encouraged by Paul, were motivated not by merit but mission. Timothy knew that a bit of pain on his part would open evangelistic doors that would be locked shut otherwise. He also knew that not doing such would be inconsistent with the statement James made at the Jerusalem council.

And his attitude is similar to that of many missionaries today when it comes to reaching the lost. If you want to be an effective witness to a Buddhist in Sri Lanka, you’ll likely have to take up a vegetarian diet. If you want to be an effective witness to those within the slums of Khlong Toey, you’ll need to live there which means you’ll likely lose any sense of personal home security. If you want to join a Christian campus movement within a college like the University of Michigan, you’ll probably need to stop wearing your Michigan State gear. 

But, again, Timothy was willing to sacrifice so that he could freely share the message of God’s sacrificial grace with others.

Are we willing to take up a similar posture?

Applying Acts 15:19-16:5 Today

The story of the Jerusalem Council is a pivotal moment with the book of Acts. It’s one of the most important narratives recorded within this book, and the implications and decisions of this council are seen not only within the following chapters, but in many of the New Testament letters as well.

Acts 15 and 16 teach us about how to discern truth. They show us the methodology that the apostles and the early church elders used in order to figure out what is or isn’t orthodox.

But these chapters also teach us the importance of unity and fellowship, too. They remind us that truth that’s not talked about in love is not only ineffective but not really adequately truthful either. And to revisit that illustration one more time, these chapters can help us make sure that the axle nuts on our metaphorical cars aren’t too loose or inappropriately tight.

Because of all that, I think it’s very important for us to listen and to learn from the actions taken by Paul, by James, and the Jerusalem Council as a whole. What might they teach us about living out our faith today?

Here’s one thing they might say: 

1. Christians battle false ideas but not people.

I had a professor in seminary who made this statement. He said: “Always have a theological enemy.” And he was mostly joking. The statement was made in jest. He was actually commenting about how a book he had written was vastly outsold by Rick Warren, a popular pastor who had also just written a book taking a very different side on some biblical doctrine debate.

But I think that my professors’ comment is actually telling in some ways. Because a lot of us like to make people into theological enemies. When we disagree with someone, whether they are a popular best-setting book-writing pastor, or just someone a few pews down from us in church, we have the tendency to think of them more as a rival than a fellow believer and one dearly loved by God.

Or, let me come at this from a different but related angle.

Because this isn’t just an internal church issue either.

Have you ever heard the phrase: “the offensiveness of the gospel?” This is a scriptural statement. Paul refers to the cross as an offense in Galatians, Peter refers to Jesus being the Messiah as offensive in 1 Peter, and even the prophet Isaiah talked about this way back in Isaiah 8.

The gospel message is offensive. It’s hard for most of us to hear that we are inherently sinners, and that we don’t deserve Heaven. It’s offensive that God’s Messiah had to die a painful and bloody death on a Roman cross in order atone for our sins. And it definitely rubs a lot of us wrong that this same Christ now calls us to live in a way that stands in contrast to the comforts or freedoms we once might have enjoyed.

The gospel is offensive, but we ourselves don’t have to be. The gospel is offensive, but that doesn’t give us permission to hide behind a phrase like that in order to justify unloving behavior.

Let me put my student ministries hat on for a moment.

I try to keep up as best I can with generational statistics, or the research that’s done among teenagers about their feelings toward Christianity, the Church, and religion in general. Springtide is one organization that measures such things, and they just released their new 2020 study about Generation Z, or students who were born anywhere between 1997 and 2015.

And a lot of the things they’ve measured aren’t surprising. They show trends that started way back in the 80’s and are just continuing to grow bigger each year. For example, distrust in authority is on the rise. Those who are religiously unaffiliated, or don’t claim to believe anything, is on the rise. And the number of students who feel isolated or lonely is at an all-time high.

But there were some new things measured this year on the topic of why young people seem to be leaving the church more and more. And relatedly, there’s been an uptick in podcast episodes where a few different podcasts, or radio-like programs, interview statisticians and give commentary on all of this too. 

Why are young people leaving the church at larger numbers? Why do students who go off to college often not continue on within their parent’s faith? Well, it isn’t because we aren’t teaching the Bible to them. And it isn’t necessarily because we aren’t equipping them good enough to answer the attacks that secular institutions might throw against them either.

In fact, some of these recent finding sort of show the opposite.

We are teaching our children scripture. We are talking about Jesus and reading His words to them. We are showing them what the Bible says about biblical unity, love, and truthfulness. But then we don’t practice what we preach.

We might remind our kids of Christ’s golden rule or narratives like the Jerusalem Council. But we use our same mouth to spout out hate against people who think differently than us.

That inconsistency, and the act of enemy-making, is a big factor in young people leaving the church today.

It isn’t the offensiveness of the gospel. It’s us. It’s me.

2. Because God granted us grace by way of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we should be gracious and sacrificial toward our neighbors.

Remember that James’ comments weren’t motivated by merit but mission.

His words were not meant to be taken as a command for Gentile believers to follow the law of Moses, but a call for them to love their Jewish neighbors in a sensitive and understanding way.

A way that builds bridges better than it burns them.

James understood that because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, everyone who puts their faith in Christ is freed from the false obligation to do good works to earn salvation. But we’ve also been freed to do good works out of gratitude, too. And we’ve been invited into a posture of living that calls us to become like Christ: merciful, gracious, loving, sacrificial, and self-expending.  

And on that note, personally, between last week’s and this week’s message on Acts 15, I find last week’s easier to digest.

I find that I am wholly comfortable standing up for the truth. And I really do enjoy the investigative process of discernment and making sure that my thoughts are aligned with scripture. I can say good orthodox things about God and declare essential truths about our faith. I can also sentimentalize and offer up nice sounding statements that sound genuine and don’t cost me anything.

But that’s exactly it.

Unity and fellowship can sometimes carry a cost. Sharing our faith effectively can sometimes push us into uncomfortable but necessary situations. And we need to be willing to pay that price if we want to be good representatives of God’s coming kingdom and good stewards of God’s gospel message.

Earlier, and towards the beginning of this sermon, I read a quote from Martin Luther, the 15th century German Reformer. I’d like to re-read that quote here at the end. 

Martin Luther wrote: “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that it is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will, do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”

We are saved by grace through faith, and not in any way by our own works.

And that is the truth. That’s what was decided on by the Jerusalem council and verified by the Spirit. That’s what was stated by Peter and confirmed through the scriptures quoted by James. But that truth should also spur us on towards gracious and loving action.

It should make us desire self-expenditure for the sake of unity, and self-sacrifice for the sake of opening doors for the gospel to reach the lost. 

So, let me ask this final question: How are you going to give yourself as a Christ to your neighbor, just as Christ has given Himself up for you?

[1] This illustration was modified from Michael Wittmer’s book “Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough,” pages 29-30.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed., ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 392.

[3] You can download Springtide’s new Gen Z report here: https://www.springtideresearch.org/

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